ASHBURN, Va. -- After underachieving for the first five games last season, the Washington Commanders' defense started playing the way it had hoped. The unit went from one of the lowest-ranked defenses in the league to a strong one. At least for a long stretch.
That was about the time Washington moved safety Landon Collins into a hybrid role. It wasn't a coincidence. And it could shape their thinking when it comes to the 11th pick in the 2022 NFL draft (on ESPN, ABC and ESPN App).
Washington has other desires on defense, such as finding another linebacker and adding more depth up front. The Commanders also have needs on offense, such as finding another playmaker for quarterback Carson Wentz and adding more linemen.
But improving the secondary, and the position Collins played in the team's Buffalo nickel package, has become pivotal. It's a three-safety package that features a safety/linebacker hybrid, a role Collins wasn't keen on but filled well.
"Moving Landon and getting him to play the Buffalo position, the big nickel, has really benefited us," coach Ron Rivera said during the season. "And, it's benefitting him."
The problem is Washington cut Collins, who was scheduled to count $16.2 million against the salary cap. According to a source, Washington would welcome Collins back if it fails to fill this role during the draft and if he would be receptive to a pay cut, though there likely would be incentives to earn more.
Collins was willing to take one pay cut earlier this offseason, but then Washington asked him to take another one after acquiring Wentz and his $28 million cap hit for 2022. Collins rejected that one and was cut.
That's why Notre Dame's Kyle Hamilton would be tempting if he's available when Washington picks 11th overall, as ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. projects in his latest mock draft. Hamilton's 40-yard dash time of 4.59 seconds could cause him to fall out of the top 10.
The Commanders also hosted another prospect who could fill that role -- Penn State's Jaquan Brisker, who is projected as a late-first- or early-second-round pick. Brisker and Michigan safety Daxton Hill both visited Washington.
Washington could opt to bypass Hamilton, take a receiver at No. 11 and select another safety they like later in the draft (such as Georgia's Lewis Cine). Or trade down, accrue more picks in Rounds 2-4 -- the area in the draft where teams can get the best value. There are other safeties they like in this range who could fill that Buffalo nickel role.
"I have a hard time passing on Kyle Hamilton if he's there at 11," said ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen. "He can be a game-changer on defense. I don't care what he runs in the 40, he plays fast on tape."
Washington started using Collins in this role in Week 5 last season against New Orleans. The Commanders' defense allowed two big plays in that game, both for touchdowns. So, in the first five games Washington's defense ranked 31st in points allowed and 27th in yards.
But in the next eight games, with Collins full time in this new role (along with some other defensive tweaks) the defense ranked sixth in yards and 12th in points. Rivera called him a dynamic player.
Washington used that alignment -- with Collins and safeties Kamren Curl and Bobby McCain -- more than 50% of the time. The Commanders would also like to add a linebacker, though they say they like how Cole Holcomb progressed playing inside last season.
"He did a good job when he was in there," general manager Martin Mayhew said. "He kind of grew into that position last year when he got an opportunity to play some Mike [linebacker]. We'll see how it plays out."
If they find someone to play inside, Holcomb can move outside where they feel he is more natural. They drafted Jamin Davis last season hoping he could play inside, but now want to keep him outside. Washington will look at linebackers after the first round. Montana State's Troy Andersen and Wyoming's Chad Muma, among others, would be interesting prospects in that range.
"Let's slow our roll there," Rivera said when asked about the need for a middle linebacker. "Now there are a couple guys you say might be a really good second-round pick or a third, and you could move up and take that guy there."
After all, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, Washington used a three-linebacker set only 65 times last season, including 60 in its 4-3 set. In the NFC East, even against run-heavy Philadelphia, Washington rarely used three-linebacker sets. The Commanders used it eight times in two games against the Eagles, four vs. New York and none vs. Dallas.
"The linebacker position is still important," Bowen said, "but the days of a two-down linebacker? Those days are gone."
But finding the right player to complete that Buffalo nickel package is key. It could be Hamilton, whom Bowen compares to Denver safety Justin Simmons. Like Hamilton, Simmons was dinged for his speed -- he ran a 4.61 in the 40-yard dash before the draft and is now considered a top-five safety.
Bowen also likes Penn State's Brisker, comparing his skill set to the Bills' versatile safety Micah Hyde. But he said Hamilton, at 6-foot-4, can match up with tight ends -- important considering Washington will face Philadelphia's Dallas Goedert twice. And Hamilton can also play in the back end.
"He has second- and third-level impact ability," Bowen said. "He has a rare size and is athletic. He plays fast and he's disruptive."